New Principals Named For Winn Brook, Burbank Elementary

Photo: The Winn Brook Elementary School

Two of Belmont’s four elementary schools will have new principals for the start of the 2020-21 school year starting in September, according to an email from Belmont Superintendent John Phelan.

Anita Mecklenburg, an assistant principal and curriculum director in Norfolk, will become principal of the Winn Brook, and J. Seeley Okie, the interim principal of the Burbank since July, 2019 will take over the position permanently. Both educators will officially start on July 1.

For the past six years, Mecklenburg has been the assistant principal at the H. Olive Day School, a Pre-K to second grade facility, and director of curriculum and instruction in English Language Arts and History and Social Science for Pre-K to 6th grade.

Before her stay in Norfolk, Mecklenburg spent 22 years at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Franklin, 13 years as a first grade teacher. Mecklenburg received her BA in Elementary Education from the University of Iowa and an Master’s degree in organizational management from Endicott College.

A resident of Norfolk, Mecklenburg is a candidate for Norfolk’s Select Board in its upcoming election.

Before coming to Belmont, Okie was an assistant principal at the MacArthur Elementary School in Waltham for seven years. Prior to becoming an administrator, Okie taught third and fourth grade in the Natick Public Schools, the Charles River School in Dover, and the Keys School in Palo Alto, Calif. Okie began his career in education as a K-12 science teacher in the Foothills Academy, Wheatridge, Colo.

Okie earned a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies from Colby College. He obtained a Master’s Degree in School Leadership from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from Lesley College.

Not Now: Belmont Schools Decline Virtual Classroom In Remote Learning Program

Photo: First slide in the Belmont School District’s overview of its Phase II remote learning program.

While a sizable number of Belmont parents – in online message boards, text communications and emails – are pushing the school district to employ a more traditional teacher/students learning experience via a virtual classroom, it appears, for now, Belmont’s educators will be staying with its current remote learning plan.

That was the conclusion of a wide-ranging Town Hall-styled forum held by the Belmont School Committee via video conferencing on Tuesday, April 7.

Approximately 85 residents “attended” the session, which allowed the committee and the school district to update the rollout of Phase II of the district’s Remote Learning curriculum that began on Monday, April 5.

The key components in this teacher-led phase are creating direct learning that includes social-emotional learning, maintenance of previously learned skills and contents as well as meaningful learning opportunities as students advance the curriculum in both skills and content.

On Tuesday, the school committee heard from Belmont Superintendent John Phelan and members of the district’s central office presented a step-by-step outline of the Phase II plan while answering a harvest load of questions on how the schools have been handling the school closures and remote learning.

You can see the answers to parents’ questions as well as the district’s Phase II plan here.

But what has been a bone of contention for many parents is a growing disappointment across the grade spectrum that Belmont has not implemented a remote program that centers on classroom-style learning in which teachers would spend some part of their day “in front” of their students.

“Hopefully, phase II will include some virtual classroom learning for students which will assist with curriculum instruction allow students to see each other and learn together. Some schools who are doing virtual classrooms have used a modified schedule which has been great for teachers, student and parents,” said “Patrick” at the meeting.

In addition, parents were frustrated that Belmont schools spent the initial two weeks under Phase I which focused on “enrichment” of the studies that students had learned during the school year. They point to school districts such as Natick as committing to a virtual concept of educating its students.

“My first grader has gone from approximately 30 hours per week of seeing his first-grade teacher and peers to about 40 minutes per week maximum,” said Lindsay Doherty in a note to the meeting.

“K-4 teachers should be holding morning meetings 3-5 times per week if you are actually dedicated to [Social Emotional Learning]. That’s what is being required in other districts on top of at least [four] small group online meeting per week to check-in. Twice per week is not enough for these young kids.” said Doherty.

But despite parents’ advocacy, “[w]e do not have a plan right now for substantive changes to Phase II,” said Janice Darius, assistant superintendent.

John Phelan, Belmont’s superintendent, reminded the public that Phase II – which goes beyond what the state has asked of districts in doing remote learning – has only been up and running for two days.

“I reserve the right to say, ‘let’s let the teachers do their work for the next two weeks and then let’s assess it, let’s talk about what … is going well and … what might not be going well’.”

And at least for the near term, Phelan effectively put to rest any opportunity the district will set up an interactive lecture hall even if schools remain off-limits to students for the remainder of not just the school year but 2020.

“I can’t predict what next week or what next month holds but doing a straight online virtual classroom every day across the high school, middle school and elementary schools I don’t see happening this year,” he said.

The constraints preventing the implementation of a district-wide remote classroom program lies in two areas. The first is the need to ramp up the infrastructure and technology to create an effective and seamless teaching environment. In addition to the connectivity issues, there are significant security and privacy concerns that will need to be resolved as well as equity and access for all students.

The second hindrance to virtual lectures came from the working teacher on the School Committee. Tara Donner is an elementary school teacher in Winchester who acknowledged that many parents had been hoping that teachers and students would be “meeting” on a regular basis to conduct

“On one hand, yes, I totally agree that it’s not enough facetime but there so much about our situation right now that is not right for everyone,” said Donner. She told the meeting of her own experience in the classroom with kids how “there are so many things you can do all at one time” talking to a student, passing out assignments, monitoring homework.

“You can do five things at once, that in this home environment, each one of those things takes so much more time,” she said. “I think [increased facetime] is important for the kids to be able to see and connect, but it’s not the same as teaching.”

“So doing [virtual classroom] five times a week for however long does not accomplish the same thing and I think it can cause stress for some students,” said Donner.

The district is floating the idea of a survey to receive feedback from parents on their experiences and how to improve Phase II. But that would not be sent out until the last days of April.

While the current return to school date set by Gov. Baker is May 4, Phelan said students, teachers, and parents “must be a little more nimble with how we approach to school” with the knowledge there is a possibility social distancing will be reintroduced sometime during the 2020-2021 school year.

“Our goal is to try to create a dual learning environment where were we can be flexible if we have to open school for a few months and may be closed for several days or weeks and try to keep the momentum of the learning moving forward for the entire school year

Business Closed, Fined As Overtaxed Health Dept. Deals With COVID-19 Surge

Photo: Masks are now advised for use by all citizens. (Credit: CDC/ Debora Cartagena)

A Belmont business was ordered closed and fined for violating the state’s non-essential business law as the town continues its efforts to steam the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wesley Chin, director of the town’s Health Department, told the Select Board during its meeting held via video conference on April 6, his department received word over the weekend that an unidentified establishment deemed non-essential was operating.

Gov. Charlie Baker issued COVID-19 order No. 21 on March 31 extending his original March 23 requiring all businesses and organizations in the state that do not provide “COVID-19 Essential Services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers, and the public until May 4, 2020.

“We have since sent a cease and desist order and [issued] a $300 fine to the business owner,” he said.

“It’s not what we want to do, but we also want people to know that they need to help us take [the shut down] seriously,” said Chin. “We don’t have the time to give people warnings, it’s just going to go right to a violation notice with a fine.”

When asked by Select Board Chair Tom Caputo if he has the staff level needed to meet the needs of the community, Chin said in the last week, “we’re starting to really feel the pinch … and we’re treading water” as he and his staff are “trying our best to keep up with things” including responding to a high level of emails “from concerned citizens with a lot of great ideas.”

On a hopeful note, Chin said his office just received a second $10,000 grant from the state’s COVID-19 emergency fund. The $20,000 will be used “to bring on additional nursing help … for the department to get through the duration of this difficult time.”

In his update on the COVID-19’s impact in Belmont, Chin reported 41 confirmed cases by the state’s Department of Public Health of the novel coronavirus as of Monday, April 6.

There has still been only one death – that of a resident of living at Belmont Manor, a rehabilitation and nursing facility – attributed to COVID-19.

Saying he hopes he doesn’t sound like a broken record, “[w]e do believe there are more cases out there that are positive” for the virus, warning that asymptomatic (the lack of any symptoms) spread of COVID-19 can occur.

“There are people walking around that seemed perfectly healthy that may not have any awareness but they’re spreading the virus to other people in the community,” said Chin, who reiterated the importance of social distancing, whether it is indoors at a supermarket or pharmacy or outside.

Chin also advocated the use of face coverings when leaving the house, again both when residents are inside and outdoors.

Letter To The Editor: Rash Remarks Due To A World Turned Upside Down

Photo: Belmont public school

To the editor:

I am a member of the Belmont Warrant Committee, a long time Town Meeting member and parent of three children who have been educated in the Belmont School system, two of whom have graduated in recent years.

Last week at the Committee’s first meeting since the Coronavirus emergency, I made some rash statements regarding the teachers in the Belmont Schools that I would like to apologize for.

I expressed my frustration with the lack of speed that the Schools have taken to set up learning structures and recommendations for students, based on my own students’ experience thus far. I should not have expressed these frustrations in a way that maligned Belmont teachers or implied that teachers were not spending time planning for online teaching and learning.

I appreciate that our teachers are dedicated to our students. I apologize for these comments. I am from a family of teachers. And, as people who know me are keenly aware, I have been a long time supporter and advocate for the Belmont Schools and their appropriate funding during my time as a Warrant Committee member and as a parent volunteer.

My family, like everyone else’s, has been turned upside-down by this pandemic; one of my daughters is losing her final semester at college and her graduation, and my spouse is working in a hospital ICU. Our family had a particularly rocky day on the day of the Warrant Committee meeting – no excuse for my comments, but I wanted to provide that context.

I will be more constructive in my expressions in the future.

Thank you, and stay well during this time of crisis.

Chris Doyle, Warrant Committee

With Census Underway, Belmont Push All Residents To Be Counted

Photo: US Census 2020

With nearly 58 percent of residents already checked in, Belmont town officials are eager to have those remaining citizens join their neighbors and be counted in the 2020 US Census.

Belmont Assistant Town Administrator Jon Marshall is asking residents to take the time to fill out the census form whether it’s online, over the phone or through the mails – they don’t even need to wait for a traditional census worker to come by your dwelling.

“With the flexibility and support of Belmont residents, we will achieve a complete and accurate count which helps guide funding decisions for things like health centers, roads and emergency services,” said Marshall.

Census data is used to determine legislative districts, determine state representation in Congress, calculate how federal funding is allocated to states and municipalities, and develop vital information that helps us understand our town, attract new businesses, and identify areas of need for support services, health care, and more. 

Both phone and online options are available in 13 languages, and assistance in many more languages is available on

Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the Census is a once-in-a-decade count of every person living in the United States, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. The 2020 Census asks nine questions and takes less than ten minutes to complete.

The information provided to the Census is confidential and protected by federal law. Answers can only be used to produce statistics and cannot be used against you by any government agency or court.

Belmont has created a page with some helpful information. On the page are a number of quick links including: How’s Belmont Doing: Track Here, This allows residents to see the town’s response rate.

See the tracking page at the Town’s Website at

Bag Your Trash To Help Out Those Who Take It Away

Photo: Waste Management truck

Washing your hands, putting on a cloth mask and staying indoors; those are acts all people should be doing to protect themselves and others during this long pandemic.

Add to that list one more thing: Bag your trash.

That’s the advice coming from Waste Management, the town’s trash and recycling hauler.

According to the national collector, due to increased concerns for worker safety due to the COVID-190 coronavirus, residents are being asked to place all household trash into large trash bags before placing them into the black carts and taking them to the curb for collection. The company also asks that all bags are properly sealed to prevent contents from spilling out as it is placed into the trucks.

The company reminds all customers that latex and other gloves used to protect individuals from spreading the virus be placed in the trash; they do not belong in the blue recycling containers.

First Death To COVID-19 In Belmont, Infected Cases Doubled In Three Days

Photo: Belmont Health Department

The Belmont Health Department announced the first death of a Belmont resident related to COVID-19 in a press release dated Thursday, April 2.

The victim was a resident at a long-term care facility in Belmont, said Wesley Chin, Belmont’s Health Department director.

As of April 2, Belmont has 32 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The number of positive residents has more than doubled since 14 residents were confirmed on March 30.

While he did not identify the facility, Belmont Manor in the Waverley neighborhood acknowledged this week that it had a confirmed case.

“This patient developed symptoms consistent with COVID-19 while they were at the long-term care facility, and was transported to a local hospital for more advanced care where they died,” said Chin.

Chin said the facility has 14 residents who are confirmed positive cases.

Chin said that due to the infectious nature of COVID-19, “the long-term care facility is dedicating a wing of the facility to isolate patients suspected to be positive with the virus. The facility is also designating staff that will only work with patients exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.”

Staff of the long-term care facility is working with Belmont town departments (Belmont Emergency Management Agency [BEMA], Health Department, Fire Department EMS) and state agencies (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency [MEMA], Massachusetts Department of Public Health [MDPH], and Massachusetts Bureau of Health Care Safety & Quality) to continue to identify all contacts and to proactively implement infection control measures to prevent spread.

To identify any additional patients positive for COVID-19, BEMA has requested assistance from MEMA to request that the Nursing and Rest Home testing program operated by the National Guard and MDPH conduct patient testing of all residents in the long-term care facility.

For updated information and news on the COVID-19 virus, go to all-updates-here .

Budget Bloodbath: Belmont Finances ‘Severely Impacted’ Due To COVID-19; Cuts In Basic Services, A Call For Layoffs, Furloughs

Photo: Patrice Garvin, Belmont Town Administrator

It’s ugly. And it’s likely to get uglier.

That’s the first impression of Belmont’s town finances after initial estimates of the impact on the current and next year’s budgets by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Town Administrator Patrice Garvin speaking before the Warrant Committee via video conference on April 1.

With all town departments already “running lean” before the pandemic struck “another cut is going to severely impact the operations and the services we provide the residents of the town,” said Garvin.

While there are “too many uncertainties” to make any good estimates of the likely shortfall, it’s nearly certain that the anticipated pronounced loss of revenue will place a strain on the current fiscal year 2020 budget while triggering real pain in next year’s fiscal 2021 budget – which begins July 1 – from lose of basic government services and likely layoffs and furloughs of town workers, according to Garvin.

“Direr but probably realistic,” said Warrant Committee Chair Laurie Slap hearing members reiterate their belief that revenues will drop significantly with resulting cuts in expenditures.

The sudden shut off of the revenue spigot comes as the town was close to finalizing the fiscal ’21 budget that was going to be brought before Town Meeting by the Select Board. The last draft presented to the Warrant Committee, the Town Meeting’s financial “watchdog,” projected the ’21 budget at $136.6 million.

For instance, a 10 percent cut in just one line item, total state aid in fiscal ’21, would force the town to slash $1.2 million from the budget that has a revenue gap of $5.6 million. Garvin noted state aid was reduced by 20 percent between 2008 and 2009 when the last economic downturn occurred.

The town is currently looking back at town budgets in 2008 and 2009 when the country last entered into recession to get an idea of how revenues took a hit.

Override in doubt?

In addition to services, Belmont, according to Select Board Chair Tom Caputo “will need to think long and hard about whether or not … our plans for an override in November still, in fact, make sense.” The proposed “operational” override – in the $6 million range – was seen as critical in meeting town services and needs by the school district in managing a continued surge in enrollment.

The rapidly moving series of events of the past six weeks due to strategies to halt the spread of the coronavirus has Garvin and her staff attempting to hit a moving target to provide the Warrant Committee some semblance of confidence it is receiving figures it can analyze.

When the seriousness of the spreading pandemic was fully understood two weeks ago, “we quickly came to the realization that fiscal year ’21 and some of fiscal ’20 could be severely impacted” most notably by the loss of state and local revenue, said Garvin.

Now and moving forward, the town has been “scrambling” to review its revenue projections from its February budget estimates, said Garvin.

Caputo said the massive disruption in the economy from the coronavirus requires the town “to rethink our [fiscal] ’21 budget that we laid out several months” which “was one that was going to work if everything remained as we had hoped” before the COVID-19 virus caused commerce and life to be upended.

While the largest sources of revenue, real estate property taxes with an estimated revenue of $92.2 million in fiscal ’21, continue to show high compliance levels, the town is preparing for significant reductions in the aforementioned state aid and local revenue collected from fees and services.

In a four-page overview of the ’21 budget, the town has been working on, the majority of line items are color-highlighted as likely to experience a drop in revenue.

Areas where revenue numbers will shrink from the February earlier estimates will be in new growth (expected at $920,000), meals ($234,000) and excise taxes ($3.7 million) and as will parking tickets and fees from building permits. The Recreation Department was seen as generating $1 million into the town’s coffers yet now could see receipts plummet if the Underwood Pool can not open for the summer recess.

While many of the fees are relatively small – from a few thousand to over a million dollars – if each takes a significant hit, they will add to a larger deficit in the fiscal year ’21 budget projections.

“In a nutshell, [fiscal year] ’21 is just a work in progress,” said Garvin. “We’re going to just keep running different scenarios … and seeing where the [Select] Board and the Warrant Committee wants to go.”

Warrant Committee member Ellen Schrieber noted that losses in fees and other revenue in the current year will likely damped estimates of the number of reserves – mostly from the town’s free cash account – which was expected to be passed forward into fiscal ’21 to fund gaps in the budget.

Garvin agreed, saying free cash “is where we’re going to get the hit next year.”

Hiring Freeze, Layoffs Possible

While the budget outlook is far from clear, the town is already formulating “initiatives” to begin filling the gulf of red ink facing the town. The likely first step will be a “thoughtful” hiring freeze, according to Caputo, as well as keeping a cap on overtime payments with the exception of public safety and a possible town-wide spending freeze with only “the most critical and essential items.” according to Garvin.

One significant area the town and Select Board are “brainstorming” to reduce expenses is looking hard at salaries which is the “primary” expenditure in the budget, said Caputo.

Warrant Committee member Geoffrey Lubien breached the topic of possibly furloughing town employees, noting that while not ideal, it would allow those individuals to secure unemployment benefits.

Garvin said that such conversations are occurring with the Belmont town counsel as nearly all the employees are union-represented and there needs to “decipher” the difference between a furlough and a layoff.

Lubien did followup saying reducing the workforce should be a last resort since “to let people go and then try to get them back is very difficult.”

One area of town that was only briefly touched but which looms large in town finances was schools. Yet Warrant Committee member Chris Doyle was blunt on her view that significant savings should come from the district that she believes isn’t functioning at full capacity with the schools closed and students being taught remotely.

“There is zero chance that teachers are spending anywhere close” to the same time they were in school “and it makes me want to be very encouraging for a broad furlough in the school department,” said Doyle.

Mike Crowley, the school committee representative to the Warrant Committee, felt layoffs “isn’t going to help the kids” during a difficult and at times problematic transition from educating students in a classroom setting to one at home in front of a computer.

The town is also discussing the possibility of using a provision in Gov. Charlie Baker’s Declaration of Emergency which allows municipalities to run a budget deficit due to “natural disasters on direct coronavirus expenses” The law gives a city or town breathing room to recover from a calamity by allowing the deficit to be paid off over the subsequent three fiscal years.

But for now, Garvin will be meeting with department heads and the school district to discuss where cuts can be made in an already lean program while waiting for more information from the state and town.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and we’re just kind of moving along, keeping our eyes on what we think is going to be most impacted and go from there,” said Garvin. “I could put something together for today and a month [from now] it could be completely different.”